You cannot recount the history of land ownership in America without telling a story of segregation and exclusion. Throughout the 20th century, practices like redlining and racialized zoning laws prevented African Americans and other people of color from purchasing homes and property in predominately white neighborhoods.
A lesser-known series of state laws in the 19th and 20th centuries sought to exclude Asian immigrants from permanently settling in the West. These laws, known as alien land laws, employed the definition of citizenship to restrict primarily Chinese and Japanese people from purchasing and even leasing land.
State legislatures enacted alien land laws in response to a wave of anti-Asian sentiment that began in the mid-1800s. At this time, railroad and mining companies encouraged young Chinese men to immigrate to America and work as inexpensive laborers. But many Americans stoked fears of economic competition, resulting in a wave of anti-Chinese xenophobia. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act codified this racism, legally stopping Chinese immigration and declaring Chinese immigrants ineligible for citizenship.
In part, the Chinese Exclusion Act opened the door for Japanese immigrants, who came in growing numbers to the United States, filling the labor gap generated by the halt on Chinese immigration. But the Japanese soon faced similar xenophobia, and federal laws like the Immigration Act of 1917 limited further Japanese immigration.
States contributed to this hostile environment by passing laws that prohibited the Chinese and Japanese from purchasing land. Some legislation was explicit, such as Oregon’s 1859 constitution that stated no “Chinaman” could purchase property in the state. California amended its constitution in 1879 to state that only aliens of “the white race or African descent” could purchase property.
But other laws in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while not mentioning race or ethnicity overtly, nevertheless served the purpose of excluding Asian immigrants from land ownership. California’s 1913 alien land law included a phrase common in similar legislation in other western states: “aliens ineligible for citizenship” were unable to purchase property (California later extended this law to also limit long-term leases). Because the Naturalization Act of 1870 extended naturalization eligibility only to “aliens being free white persons, and to aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent,” immigrants from both China and Japan could not apply for citizenship. Wielding language as a weapon, state alien land laws used the definition of naturalization to discriminate against specific nationalities.
Still, Chinese and Japanese immigrants found ways to circumvent these laws to purchase agricultural land, homes, businesses and other properties. Some immigrants had white intermediaries or corporations purchase property on their behalf. Others turned to their children. First-generation Japanese immigrants, known as Issei, would purchase property under their American-born children, or Nisei. Born in the United States, Nisei were American citizens, and therefore excluded from alien land laws.
One Japanese immigrant family successfully weakened alien land laws in their attempt to circumvent the legislation. In 1915, the Harada family of Riverside, Calif., purchased a home in the name of three of their American-born children. The Harada’s neighbors, largely affluent white families, formed a committee to encourage the Haradas to sell their home. When the Haradas refused, the neighbors brought the case to the Riverside County Superior Court. The California v. Haradacase received national and international attention: Japan’s growth as a political and economic power, coupled with a rise in anti-Japanese sentiment, meant the results of the decision could be felt well beyond the state of California.
Ultimately, the Riverside Superior Court judge upheld the alien land law, but said it was legal for Nisei children, as American citizens, to own land. The Haradas were able to remain in their home.
But the court case win did not eliminate alien land laws, nor did it lessen the rising tide of anti-Japanese sentiment. Less than 25 years later, the Harada family would be forced from their Riverside home and placed in internment camps as part of the Japanese-American incarceration of World War II.
Alien land laws remained in place in over a dozen states until the Supreme Court finally struck them down in 1952. Yet many states did not officially remove these laws from their constitutions until decades later. New Mexico repealed theirs in 2006, and Florida finally removed an alien land law only in 2021.
The history of alien land laws serves as a stark reminder of the ways in which legislation can use subtle language to inflict massive damage on the opportunities provided to particular racial, ethnic or socioeconomic groups of people.
Republished with permission from Governing Magazine, by Emma Newcombe
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